I am excited to share my interview with Daniel P Coleman, author of Presence and Process: A Path Toward Transformative Faith and Inclusive Community. Daniel holds an MA in religion from Earlham School of Religion and describes himself as a progressive Christian Quaker theologian with Buddhist leanings. His work touches on contemplative spirituality, process theology, interfaith dialogue, Quakerism and biblical studies. Daniel and his wife, Carla, live in Seattle Washington.
You can learn more about Daniel at Daniel P Coleman.
Now on to the interview.
What prayer methods do you practice on a daily basis?
My daily practice is essentially Centering Prayer. I use my breath as a focal object while observing (but not engaging) the thoughts going by in my head, and invoking a prayer word (in my case, “grateful”) when I realize I have gotten caught up into rumination. Throughout my day I will stop and take a few deep breaths along with my prayer word to re-center. My wife and I also sit with a group of Buddhists one night a week for a time of meditation and “dharma talk” and although I am doing Centering Prayer during that time it is not very different from what the Buddhists around me are doing.
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How do you define contemplative prayer?
I define contemplative prayer as a generally apophatically oriented practice in which one intentionally eschews active thinking, imagining, rumination, ratiocination, conceptualization and instead “self-simplifies” (to use Evelyn Underhill’s term) by taking an internal stance of stillness; stepping back from active “default mode” thinking and allowing thoughts to simply pass by, observed but not engaged. In order to remain in this detached and watchful state a focal ”anchor” object is employed (most commonly one’s own breath). There are kataphatic contemplative practices as well—most notably Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises—and there are practices such as Lectio Divina which lead from kataphatic to apophatic. (“Kataphatic” means employing thoughts and imaginings and conceptualizations while “apophatic” means letting go of thoughts and imaginings and conceptualizations.)
How has your prayer life evolved over the years?
The discovery of contemplative/meditative practice was a monumental shift in my prayer life and it had a profound impact my entire life. I had been taught that prayer was talking to God, maybe with little occasional gaps in which God might get a word in edgewise. Contemplative practice required of me (and developed within me) a much deeper level of faith and trust, that God knows what I need before I ask (to paraphrase Matthew 6:8) and that I can rest silently in that.
In the years leading up to writing ‘Presence and Process’ I “tried out” many apophatic practices, from Theravada-based Mindfulness (Vipasanna) to Zen to Quaker “standing in the light” to John Main’s mantra-based Christian Meditation to Centering Prayer, etc. What I realized is that these methods are much more alike than different; they’re really just variations on a basic methodology. In ‘Presence and Process’ I begin by explaining what that basic methodology is and then explore the variations of it in the Christian and Buddhist milieus.
How does contemplative prayer help people?
It’s hard to top the explanation given by Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams when he addressed the Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome in 2012
One of the most fundamental things that contemplative prayer does is makes you realized that you are not your thoughts and feelings. Your thoughts and feelings are ephemeral events that arise, exist for a moment and then dissipate. As such, they are not “you,” nor do they necessarily accurately reflect reality (in fact, they very often don’t). The practice of observing thoughts and feelings in a detached meditative manner develops a “gap” between one’s self and these mental events. This gap enables one to choose whether or not to engage (and thus empower) a thought or emotion or to let it pass on by. This results in a freedom from the tyranny of our thoughts and emotions: they don’t control us.
What this freedom from “afflicting thoughts and passions” (as the ancient Christian desert monastics called them) produces is a “peace that surpasses all understanding,” a deep abiding calm, a clearer moral compass, a sense of union with God and of connectedness with God’s creation and a deep well of compassion for other beings. In a word: transformation. As neurologist/psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put it, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Contemplative prayer develops our awareness of that “space” as an opening to a larger Reality in which God can be experientially encountered and personal transformation can occur, leading to a life of holiness.
What advice do you have for beginners to contemplative prayer?
I think establishing a routine is very important. For me this means getting up at 5am every week day so that I have time to meditate before I get ready for work. Having a place set aside in which to practice can be helpful. For me that simply entails having a particular chair in my home that I use when I meditate (note: I tend to use the words “meditation,” “contemplation” and “practice” synonymously). Meditation timer apps for phones/iPads/computers can be helpful. I take a moment before beginning my time of contemplation to take a few deep breaths, remind myself of the “technique” (such as Centering Prayer) that I’m about to employ, acknowledge the One in whom we live and move and have our being, and then push the start button on my meditation timer app so I don’t get distracted worrying about how much time is passing.
I recommend beginning with 20 minutes once a day. When you’re comfortable with that see if you can add another 20 minute session during another part of the day, such as morning and evening. You can also drop in “micro-sessions” throughout your day of a moment or two. In fact, the goal is to eventually get to the point where you are practicing continuously, while driving, working, eating, etc.
During the prayer time itself it is important to not be critical of yourself. Give yourself grace when you realize you have wandered away from focusing on your breath and gotten lost in thoughts. Many meditation/contemplation teachers emphasize that the heart of the practice is actually this process of noticing when you’ve gotten caught up in rumination and returning to the breath (and/or prayer word or other focal object). In other words, losing focus is an essential part of the practice, so don’t be hard on yourself about it. It is in the returning from distraction that the contemplative “muscle” is developed.
I like Joseph Goldstein’s analogy that learning meditation/contemplation is like training a puppy to sit: the puppy might sit for a moment but then it gets up and wants to play. We consistently, but with kindness and gentleness, sit it back down again, and it gets back up again after a moment, and we gently sit it back down again. Gradually it becomes trained. Our minds are like that. Finally, I would suggest that attending organized meditation/contemplation retreats—be it a day, a weekend, a week, or longer—are a proven way to jumpstart your practice.
What one or two mystics have had a huge influence on you?
The first would be the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. I feel a deep affection for the humble anonymous elder monk who wrote that text. His advice is so clear and simple and practical and winsome and gracious. The second would be George Fox, the “founder” of Quakerism (I suspect that Fox was very much influenced by The Cloud of Unknowing).
What is significant about the contemplative mysticism of Fox and the early Quakers is how it caused them not only to go inward but also to then look outward and become radical change-agents in their culture: speaking out and activating against slavery, against war, against injustice and unfair social norms, etc., but from a place of contemplative centeredness. I see a similar trend in modern times with the “Engaged Buddhism” of Thich Nhat Hanh.
There are many other influences for me, of course: Evagrius, John Cassian, Pseudo-Dionysius, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, John Woolman, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, John Main, Laurence Freeman, Stephen Batchelor, Richard Rohr, Martin Laird, etc.
What is process theology?
Process theology is a system by which the metaphysics of process philosophy (a philosophical system developed by Alfred North Whitehead) are applied to religion. Classical Christian theologians borrowed their metaphysics from Greek philosophers (particularly Aristotle) and thought of the world in terms of substances; things suspended in space and time, made up of smaller things.
Process philosophy/theology conceptualizes the world in terms of processes occurring through the continuous passage of time, rather than as static objects. We now know that everything in this expanding universe is process and flux and flow. Everything changes. People grow up and get old and then die. Mountains rise and fall over eons, canyons are cut by water, orbits of planets and moons gradually change, climates fluctuate, species evolve and go extinct, light travels, subatomic particles flicker in and out of existence. Our bodies are comprised of trillions of cells, constantly being replaced, and each cell contains a microcosm of activity inside of it. What are the implications if I understand myself not as a noun but as a verb? As a “process” rather than as a “thing”?
Reality, for us, is process—or rather myriad processes occurring around us and within us. Process theology explores how viewing reality in this way affects our views of God and of how God interacts with creation. There are now folks within nearly every religion—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, etc.—who are applying process thought to their faith systems. There is particularly intriguing fruit being produced in the explorations of how process theology relates to contemplative spirituality. This is something that I explore in some detail in the book, and the reason for the title ‘Presence and Process.’
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness has become a somewhat generic term and even a word used to market all sorts of things. But the essence of mindfulness is the idea of being fully present and aware in the current moment and seeking to experience reality as it truly is—right here and right now. This also means gaining a clearer understanding of ourselves. Throughout history people have sought to be mindful and realized the benefits of doing so. Certain practical techniques have been developed to aid in this endeavor. I’m amazed by the similarities in these techniques across time and place and cultures and faith systems.
Why did you write Presence and Process?
It very much has its roots in a personal journey, as I sought a way of living out my Christian faith that was more holistic and transformative than what I had previously experienced. Part of that journey led me from evangelical charismatic Christianity into Quakerism, and then into Quaker seminary, and then into writing my master’s thesis on the nexus of process theology with Christian contemplative and Buddhist meditative practice, and then using that work as the basis for this book. The discoveries I made along that journey were truly life-changing (not just for me but also for my wife who travelled alongside me) and I wanted to share with others what I found.
What next steps do you want people to take as a result of reading your book?
My goal in writing ‘Presence and Process’ was to encourage people to explore meditative/contemplative practices (and also process theology) by providing a primer. My hope is that after reading ‘Presence and Process’ folks are encouraged to explore deeper whichever aspects appeal to them. This is why I included a section with a list of recommended books for further exploration of Christian contemplation, Buddhist meditation, Christian/Buddhist interpenetration, and process theology.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next book project?
I have in mind a “sequel” to ‘Presence and Process’ which will be titled ‘Story and Practice.’ Here’s the gist: We humans naturally create narratives (stories) to explain reality. As an evangelical Christian I was taught a “biblical” story about creation; original sin; the fall of humankind; God’s interactions and covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Israelites/Judahites, etc.; the birth and life and ministry and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus (as understood by the Gospel writers and by Paul and by early Christians); the establishment and development and authority of the Church; the “End Times”; etc.
The important thing, it was instilled in me, was to believe this narrative, and believe it correctly. So the emphasis was on the story. I think of Mormonism, which has a story nested within a story: One story is Joseph Smith discovering the golden tablets; another story is the tale that those golden tablets purportedly told, which became the Book of Mormon. Most introductory books on Buddhism will begin with a story about the life of Siddhartha Gautama (who came to be known as “the Buddha,” meaning “the awakened one”). Sometimes these stories are quite fanciful.
We like and need stories, but stories by themselves can only take us so far when it comes to transformation. As Dallas Willard and others have pointed out, over-emphasizing the story (as, for example, Protestant Christianity has tended to do) at the expense of engaging in experiential practices such as contemplative prayer leads to a shallow, insipid and non-transformative faith. I think of the Buddha’s statement that we mustn’t confuse a finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself. Stories give us an important contextual framework but practice is where the rubber meets the road in terms of transformation and holiness; living a holistic, integrated life; a life inwardly centered in God and outwardly expressing God’s character and values and intent.
Daniel, thanks for taking the time to let me interview you! I look forward to your future books! I encourage others to check out Presence and Process: A Path Toward Transformative Faith and Inclusive Community.
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